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War in Heaven by Charles Williams

War in Heaven (1930)

by Charles Williams

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Aspects of Power (1)

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Someone Blundered: So I wrote "Jackson" instead of "Williams"...thanks to Helen for pointing that out!

Well, I feel a bit cheated. This book had a brilliant opening line and scenes that were pregeniters of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. I thought I had stumbled onto something rich.

Unfortunately the book gets weighted down with theology and overwriting along the lines of unneeded explanations. It just got so boring, and how old it is is no excuse. I suspect Charles Williams merely had lapses of old fuddy-duddyness. Or he let good ol' J.R.R. act as his editor on some chapters. We don't quite get to endless treks across Hollin but some scenes got close.

Because, you see, Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings, that 'informal' literary club that also boasted J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis as members. So when this hot pink little number crossed my desk I was intrigued.

The humor comes only in spurts, whole scenes can be narrated with a light touch of social satire and wit and absurdity that made me smile; other scenes verged on paint drying, or worse, preaching. OK, so that last bit is a trifle unfair. You have a story involving the holy grail, a struggle between an Archdeacan and a group of Satanists you should really expect some religion to play a part. But it did go on sometimes.

What Williams really did well were the transitions from everyday life or light humor into seriously creepy scenes involving a sinister older man trying to win over a young boy for the devil. Some of that though might be from a modern lens where I try to comprehend an intelligent young couple consigning their little boy over to an eccentric old man for hours on end full of 'secret games' without batting an eye. Its not like the old man's a relative, or even a friend of the family. He's the retired father of their boss. "Oh yes, do take Adrien into London for the weekend. That sounds lovely!"

What? No! That's a terrible idea. Different times I suppose, but it just adds an extra layer of creepiness onto a novel full of sinister and unnerving events. Just be prepared to gloss over some theological exposition and there's a fine early supernatural thriller here, with funny in. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
Charles Williams, who died in 1945 and who is associated in memory with J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, wrote a group of novels — dubbed "supernatural thrillers" by T.S. Eliot — but which were in fact much more than that. If War in Heaven is typical of Williams' output, it is hard not to throw in satire and morality tale as descriptors as well.

The story begins in a publishing firm's offices where a body has been found after lunch under the desk of one of the clerks. No one seems to know the victim, and amidst general befuddlement the police are called and an investigation ensues. The reader is given a broad hint early on about the identity of the killer, who turns out to be a very mean-spirited individual, who meddles in the black arts and wouldn't care if he destroyed everyone in his nefarious pursuits. Who the criminal is becomes less interesting than wondering whether in the long run he is going to get away with murder and his evil intentions.

It happens that a book is about to be published by the firm which indicates that the Holy Grail is actually in the possession of a small country church. A few days after the murder, the clergyman attached to said church happens to be visiting the offices to deliver a manuscript. Almost in passing, the editor suggests the clergyman might find a chapter concerning the Grail to be of interest. He hands him the proofs and the clergyman, upon learning that it is his church that possesses the Grail, is interested indeed.

From there, the Grail immediately becomes the focal point of the novel. Solution to the murder takes second place. Several people seem to have a vested interest in the Grail, and some for pernicious reasons. The Grail is stolen, recovered, lost and found, and all the while it is used for both black magic and righteous purposes.

Whether you call this a fantasy or a supernatural thriller or a send-up of the genre, it is an entertaining read. I was mildly amused for the most part, and even envisioned a dark comedy in which all the parts are played by Alec Guinness. But at the end the story takes a dark turn and at that point it seemed not to be quite so satirical as it seemed at the beginning. ( )
4 vote Poquette | Jun 15, 2014 |
On this, my second foray into the labyrinth of Charles Williams's mind, I find myself still wondering what to make of the man. His work has always been described to me vaguely as "dark" (though he has the saving grace, literarily speaking, of being known as one of the Inklings and that is the principal reason I read him). In The Greater Trumps I noticed an oddly opaque quality to his spirituality, which he of course uses to great effect, building the tension to create a thriller of unusual depth. There is something unpredictable and almost occultic about Williams's imagination; it gives me a sense of ominous dread. The gates of Hell might just prevail against us.

War in Heaven, arguably Williams's best-known novel, is a combination of orthodoxy and bold upsets. It almost convinces you at the beginning that it's going to be a murder mystery, until Williams shifts gears abruptly and we have the murderer talking about his crime in the calmest manner imaginable in the next chapter. This is going to be much darker than mere murder, the reader intuits, and so it is. I think Williams is about as far as I'll go in the literature of horror.

This is Williams's contribution to the mythology of the Holy Grail (or, as he calls it, the Graal). In his version, the Graal is an object that has accidentally absorbed a great amount of mystical energy by being in the right place at the right time; in itself it is nothing, but it contains incredible power. The action is centered around it, and part of the tension comes from our lack of knowledge regarding what it can really do.

Fascinating, too, are the attempts to unmake the Graal (and the idea that the opposite of God is non-being). Some of the villains want to possess it and use its spiritual power in their Satanic rites, while the more farseeing wish only for its utter and complete obliteration. There is an intense scene in which, under attack from dark forces, the physical matter of the Graal actually starts shimmering away—until prayer shores it up again and it "defends itself." Destruction and annihilation negate Creation and are thus the final goals of the enemies of God.

And yes, God. He is here, of course, but then again He isn't. His Graal is very much present, and there are some words of Scripture that the Archdeacon repeats throughout the book, but on the whole Heaven seems oddly silent against the roar of Hell. This adds, of course, to the unsettling tone of the story. If God isn't there to fight for us in the face of this monstrous evil, we are most certainly doomed.

Glancing through the short bio on Williams in this copy, I see that he wrote other works, including a theological treatise on the Holy Spirit. Somehow I'm not surprised. He has a fascination—some, like J. R. R. Tolkien, would say an over-fascination—with spiritual warfare and the powers and principalities of the unseen realm. I wonder if his treatise is biblically sound? I can deduce some things about his beliefs from his fiction, but how much is his sense of dramatic mood coloring his real beliefs? I would like to read more of his work.

In the midst of the element of horror and spiritual warfare, there are tiny pinpricks of humor. And yet they have a profundity behind them too—like when one of the villains is told, in quite an offhand manner by an apparently ignorant person, that Satanists are just about on the level of the clerk at a brothel. Or when the Archdeacon comments, "I should never dream of relying on people who made a practice of defying God—in any real sense. They'd be almost bound to lose all sense of proportion" (235–6). Indeed!

I haven't read The Da Vinci Code so I can't venture any comparisons, though from seeing the film I can pick out some similarities. But I think they are superficial at most; based on the samples of Dan' Brown's writing that I've read and the various reviews that have picked him apart, I'd say the main difference between Brown and Williams is that Williams can actually write and there is actually some theological intelligence undergirding his action scenes. I get the sense that there are very real foundations to his thought that I am just not astute enough to really unearth.

I plan to read more of Williams books, but spaced out from one another and over a long period of time. I don't know if I will ever really understand him completely, but he certainly knows the secrets of suspense, and the theological elements give his stories an added interest. An unusual book. ( )
2 vote atimco | Jun 8, 2011 |
I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater Trumps, Descent into Hell, and All Hallows' Eve, each for fifty cents. I'd been meaning to read Williams for quite a while--besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I'd studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read.

The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of "coincidences" (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist's plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams' participation in A.E. Waite's schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes "pentagon" for "pentagram." (73)

I'm especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains--quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He's managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I'm somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 "The Chemist's Shop" and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey.

First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley's "occult thrillers," this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper's terrific juvenile fantasy series "The Dark Is Rising." I don't know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis' "master" George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald's work better than any of Lewis' novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.

To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, "It is a means.... If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it." (249)
10 vote paradoxosalpha | Feb 19, 2011 |
This "supernatural thriller" (according to the blurb on the cover) concerns a sort of a hapless Monty Python-esque rugby scrimmage over the possession of the Holy Grail. Two opposing teams of dry and bloodless English types (a minor Lord, a publishing clerk, an archdeacon, a retired business magnate, etc.) flail away in an attempt to obtain and employ the sacred chalice as they see fit, whether for beneficence or black magic.

The story opens, in the offices of a publishing house, with an unlikely and unsolved murder, and its mystery spreads and darkens, like blood on a shag carpet, to include all sorts of cranks and true believers - eventually, even, the spirit of Prester John - in a gray cape. The unedited proof of a book in the office/murder scene contains a paragraph which purports to locate the Holy Grail. The murder mystery then morphs into weird sport as the story centers on the Grail which is apparently as difficult to retain as a greased pig.

Williams, I'll concede, is a masterful writer, and can create a scene, spin a tale, and describe a mood. But I can't imagine who would be interested in the spiritual objectives and theological pondering of the novel's characters except for a few nerdy seminary students. For me, the experience was a combination Yawn in Heaven, Dan Brown dressed up in a stylish tuxedo, and a flashback to mandatory religious education classes. Frankly, I couldn't give a damn. ( )
10 vote Ganeshaka | Oct 21, 2009 |
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Charles Williamsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lamb, JimCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802812198, Paperback)

"The telephone was ringing wildly," begins Charles Williams's novel War in Heaven, "but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse." From this abrupt--and darkly humorous--start, Williams takes us on a 20th-century version of the Grail quest, with an Archdeacon, a Duke, and an editor playing the old Arthurian roles. Throughout, Williams reminds us that these legends were above all about divine, not just human, romance. While filled with marvels and black magic, the novel also suggests that the devil just might be what the face of God looks like to those who have sought destruction, just as that face is love to those who have sought love. The choice, Williams affirms, is always ours. --Doug Thorpe

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:51 -0400)

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"Williams gives a contemporary setting to the traditional story of the Search for the Holy Grail. Examining the distinction between magic and religion, this eerily disturbing book graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

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